Don’t be an idiot; don’t use shock collars

While renewing my commitment to training our dogs and brushing up on the literature, I am reminded of a few simple dog-training truths. You know all of these things already, but I am scribbling these principles here as a strong reminder and encouragement to myself.

Rudd Weatherwax training Lassie. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Dog training is hard, you feel me?

Good training requires a lot of commitment.

People are lazy. Myself included. This is why we have dogs with behavior problems that don’t seem to improve. This is why our dogs frustrate us and we feel like neither party is clearly communicating with the other. This is why young dogs are getting adopted out and then returned to shelters a few weeks later.

The truth is that we’re always training our dogs to do something, even when we think we aren’t. Successful training requires a lot of commitment, awareness, and conscientiousness on the part of the dog owner.

You have to be intelligent to be a good trainer.

Time to be offensive!

If you want to be a positive reinforcement trainer, intelligence may be a prerequisite — or at least a mild level of intelligence. The less intelligent or less patient among us resort to shock-collar training because it’s easy. This may seem like an extreme statement, but I don’t know of any great positive trainers who aren’t also very intelligent. I also don’t know of any people using shock collars or physical or psychological intimidation who know much (if any) canine science.

Lately, I’ve become increasingly enraged by the success of a shock-collar “training” organization in my area. The “trainers” are not certified by any national training organization, at least according to their website — because why would they need to be? All you need to know is how to push a buzzer to shock your dog in the neck. Small children can be “successful” shock-collar trainers.

I’m very dismayed with the rescue that we got our dogs from, as they have become increasingly involved with these shock-collar trainers. Whenever the rescue gets a slightly difficult German shepherd, they ship them off to “board and train” with the shock-collar folks. They love posting before and after videos of these dogs (in fact, the incisive Eileen from Eileen and Dogs has sampled from their videos in some of her excellent posts against shock collars). The rescue’s presence on Facebook and constant promotion of their “training” techniques is actually one of the main reasons I got off Facebook; I couldn’t take it anymore.

In their videos, you see a similar pattern: In the “before,” we get an energetic dog, with the trainer in the background saying stuff like, “As you can see, Roscoe isn’t trained at all, and he is crazy,” while the trainer yells “SIT!” at the dog when the dog is looking at someone else or playing with a toy on the asphalt. And then we get the “after”: All of the life in Roscoe’s eyes is gone. He now walks slowly and tensely next to the trainer, who is gripping the shocking device, and Roscoe now does everything the trainer asks him to do. The trainer exclaims, “See how well he heels now! Look how calm he is!” Yes. And see how you’ve utterly crushed his spirit. That is not a calm dog; that is a broken dog.

Just watch some videos of people working with clicker-trained dogs and compare. There is so much JOY in a positively trained dog. The positive dog is having fun with her human; they are strengthening their bond as mutual trust and encouragement is exchanged. The shock-collar-trained dog? No joy — and of course there isn’t! Would you be happy when you were working with someone who electrocuted your throat at various intervals? There is compliance, yes, but at what cost?

I’m not saying you need a PhD in animal behavior to clicker train your dog. But you do need to understand the basics of canine behavior and psychology, to understand why and how you need to do certain things. Otherwise, you will create very serious problems for yourself and your dog in the long run.

People. Be kind to your dogs. Learn some basic canine behavior and science before you start shocking them in the name of obedience training.

First day of school at Canine Campus

A poor photo of me working with Pyrrha in her first class, back in 2012.

How do we break the pattern of laziness, and thus the appeal of shock-collar training?

I’m just as lazy as the next person. If I hadn’t been welcomed into this dog blogging community and found Patricia McConnell before Cesar Millan, I might have resorted to intimidation-based training tactics. I understand why physical and psychological domination appeals to so many dog owners. But knowing what I now know about dogs, it chills my blood to see those techniques used on dogs.

What aspects of dog training do you wish more people knew? What reminders about dog training do you need to hear yourself?

 

Practicing “off-leash” recall on a hike with the dogs

On Sunday, we took the pups on a much-needed hike at a nearby park. We found trails in the mountains that took us about an hour and a half to complete, which was perfect, as we needed to get back to town in relatively short order.

Mint Springs Valley Park hike

The best part, though, was that the trail was completely empty, so we got to practice some much-needed off-leash recall.

Mint Springs Valley Park hike

We had both girls on long drag leads, and we were outfitted with bits of cooked, real turkey, which proved to be a very strong reinforcer.

Mint Springs Valley Park hike

I have to say, I was so impressed with our girls! Living in the city, they are very rarely off-leash, so this is not a behavior that we often get to practice. But they did so well. They stuck to the trail and came back to us every time we called.

Mint Springs Valley Park hike

Pyrrha’s recall (to me) is pretty foolproof. During the latter part of the hike, she just walked right alongside me. We still need to work on her coming to Guion (as you can see from the first picture of the dogs in this post, she is still nervous about interacting with Guion), so we practiced with him being the only one to reward her when she came back to us.

Mint Springs Valley Park hike

Eden still needs to work on the actual coming to us, but she always stopped to wait for us to catch up during the whole hike — and she always stopped to reorient and turn to us when we called her. It was very cute, and it put us both at ease, as she never allowed herself to get out of sight. We worked on only rewarding her when she came right up to us (instead of rewarding her as we walked closer to her), and she seemed to catch on to this gambit rather quickly.

I love using long drag leads to practice this behavior, because you still have the reassurance of control if you need it, and 30-foot leads mean that they can never really get too far away from your reach. The only trick is not stepping on the lines while you hike!

Mint Springs Valley Park hike

We came home with two tired and very happy pups!

How do you practice off-leash recall?

Creating dog training stations in your home

One of the things I’ve recently learned in my few years of dog ownership is that you are always training your dog — even when you think you aren’t. We train our dogs to do all sorts of things unconsciously. (For example, they keep barking and jumping at the exterior door, because I let them in whenever they do that. Bad human!)

But to help myself train a bit more consciously, I’ve been setting up what I call “training stations” around our house.

I’m sure you’ve been there before: Your dog suddenly behaves exactly the way you want her to, and you have nothing (powerful, e.g., food) to reward her with. Or your dog issues the movement you’ve been trying for weeks to capture, and you don’t have a clicker or a treat anywhere in sight. This seems to happen to me all the time.

Hence, training stations.

Creating training stations | Doggerel

Training station with Honest Kitchen treats, from The House of Two Bows!

These are just little areas of the house where I have learned that I tend to want to work with the dogs, so I outfit those spaces with treats and a clicker and maybe a rewarding toy or two. All of this is put up in a place where the dogs can’t get to it.

In this area, on the console table in our dining room, I’m mostly trying to reward both girls for coming when called. They both have a habit of barking at our neighbors (at wee hours of the morning), which is not desirable. Now that I have this station set up near the door, I can quickly reward them for coming when called — and boy, has it been working! Both Pyrrha and Eden will come almost every time when I call them to come in from the yard. It’s still a work in progress, but having this station near the door has been so helpful.

Creating training stations | Doggerel

I also have a training station in a basket in the basement, where we do more movement-intensive training (like working on our stay, go to mat, or leave it cues). We also do most of our grooming down here, so the basket is filled with treats, toys, clickers, and grooming supplies.

Creating training stations | Doggerel

Training station in the basement, with treats from Ruby at Rubicon Days!

Finally, I also have a tiny training station in the dog room, where they have their crates. Both girls have their “go to your house” command down pretty solid, but we still like to intermittently reinforce this. Because these treats live on the windowsill, the door to their room is often closed if we haven’t put the treats up and out of reach.

Creating training stations | Doggerel

It may seem silly, but having these little stations has certainly improved the likelihood of me training and reinforcing good behavior, as well as just encouraging me to do some training on the fly.

What strategies have you adopted to make training easier in your home?

Our obedience school graduate

(I feel like “obedience school” is kind of a harsh, traditional word for it, but I’m not sure what the appropriate synonym is. Training class? Whatever.)

Our little obedience school graduate. Still acts like a psycho. #germanshepherd #soproudofguion

Little Edie graduated from her basic obedience class last night!

It was fun taking this class with a different dog; we took it with Pyrrha a few weeks after we got her, and the class was a struggle for poor, shy Pyr. We had to spend the whole class behind a door, as she just couldn’t handle the room full of other dogs. Just getting Pyrrha into a calm mindset to actually train was challenge enough; some weeks, she couldn’t get there, and we’d just focus on helping her relax in the classroom.

Eden, however, has been a different story; she’s gregarious, eager to work, and such a quick learner. She may have been the craziest dog in class, but I of course think she was also the smartest. Ha! It helps that she is extremely food motivated, and we always brought her to class without having had dinner. In class, she’s willing to do anything — I’ll do back-flips! Speak Portuguese! Solve a differential equation! — to get that treat.

She’s learned a number of commands in class, but we need to be better about generalizing those behaviors and practicing them at home. Training with a partner makes this easier; I can go work with Pyrrha, and Guion can work with Eden in a different room. Training solo has been a bit harder, because the exiled dog always seems to know what’s up (Someone is getting treats in there, and it’s not me!).

Things we learned in class that I’d like to keep working on:

  • Not jumping on people. She still goes WILD whenever we have guests over, and this has been a hard one to teach. Because even if we instruct people to turn their backs to her and not look at her, they still get mauled. Eden is able to throw out a sit during these greetings, but it’s certainly not her first reaction still. I don’t even need a sit; I’m fine so long as all four paws are on the ground. But we need to take charge of this, because it’s a nuisance.
  • Go to your mat. I think we need another mat in the house, because right now, we’re training this on the same mat, and I know Pyrrha wouldn’t like sharing it with Edie.
  • Stay. She’s definitely figuring this one out, but we need to practice a whole lot more before this is rock-solid.
  • Leave it. Eden has shown incredible self-control with this command in class, but it’s a harder thing to practice at home or on walks, so we need to be more vigilant about that.
  • Bravo! Teaching her to offer a bow. Just a cute trick, and I think she could learn it. Luring is most useful with this command, but I know capturing is preferable, so I need to remember to have treats on hand when they get let out of their crates to do their morning stretches.

Being in a class is always so motivating to me. I wish we had the funds to take them year-round. Eden really thrives in a classroom environment, so I think we’d like to take another class with her. Intermediate obedience or agility could be really fun with her. I don’t think she’ll ever be an agility star (she doesn’t have that border collie quickness), but I think she’d really enjoy it.

Have you taken your dogs to obedience classes? How did they go?

Gradually practicing off-leash behavior

Practicing off-leash recall in the front yard

One of our September training goals is to improve Pyrrha’s off-leash recall ability.

This has been a tricky thing to teach safely. When we first had Pyrrha, we made the mistake once of thinking she was pretty good off leash… and almost lost her in the woods for a heart-stopping 10 minutes. She is very motivated to come to me, but she’s also highly distractible, anxious, and unmotivated to come to anyone who isn’t me. She’ll come to me in the backyard whenever I call her, but there are very few distractions back there.

So. Our solution to training this behavior has been our giant front yard.

Practicing off-leash recall in the front yard

Meandering back to the house; dragging the leash.

Our tiny house is set back quite far from the street, so this has been our practice routine:

Every night, when I go out to get the mail, Pyrrha comes with me and wears the slip lead. I hold it lightly in my hand as we walk to the mailbox, but then, when we turn back to the house, I drop the lead and she gets to wander, untethered, back to the house.

Practicing off-leash recall in the front yard

Sniff where the deer have been.

She’s been doing very well with this routine. As you can see, she is a big sniffer, and her nose tends to be her biggest distraction. I let her check things out for a few minutes, and then I call her to me. She comes to me 95% of the time on the first call.

Clearly, Pyrrha has learned the behavior for this particular routine. She runs straight to the front door, 9 times out of 10. She will occasionally stray to one side of the house, but always comes back to me at first call. I haven’t had to run after her — yet!

Practicing off-leash recall in the front yard

Check the pear tree for squirrels.

Other things I can do to improve:

  1. Have treats with me every time. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. She seems motivated enough to come to me, but I shouldn’t take that for granted, especially if we start to practice this in higher-stress environments.
  2. Practice this with Guion. Again, I’m the only person — probably in the world? — that Pyrrha will come to. I see this as a big behavioral hazard for her. The one time she got out at my parents’ house and was truly lost, this was my greatest concern; I knew she wouldn’t come to anyone else, not even my husband. So it was very lucky that I was the one who found her, but that is not something I can count on.
  3. Think of places where we can practice this behavior with her 30-ft line. There’s a usually vacant soccer field nearby that could work…
Practicing off-leash recall in the front yard

Patrol around the side of the shed.

How did you teach off-leash recall? Any tips for us?

September training and behavior goals

More for my own sake, I’m going to start a short, monthly series here to record my training and behavior goals for Pyrrha. At the end of the month, I’ll make a brief progress report. This is more for keeping myself in line than for anything else, because if you write it on the Internet, then you have a faceless mob to keep you accountable. Right?

Get it, P. #kisses #loveandfear

Kissing Dad!

I don’t consider myself nearly as hardcore as the majority of you, so we’re going to keep our goals simple for now.

September Training and Behavior Goals for Pyrrha

  1. Take a reactivity class at Canine Campus.
  2. Practice behavior modification techniques to reduce on-leash reactivity toward other dogs. Crossing the street, treating for just looking at dogs, and ME taking deep breaths and loosening my body language and grip.
  3. Practice off-leash recall in the front yard. (More on this soon.)
  4. Improve and sharpen the command “Stay.” Get more consistent on this. (Sometimes I use the word “wait,” which is clearly not helpful to anyone.)
  5. Keep practicing calm exits from the crate. Particularly as we are with Draco now, work to mitigate her behavior so that she doesn’t grumble at him when she moves from the crate to the door. She has a habit of basically messing with him when she exits the crate to go to the backyard: growling, jumping in his face. I don’t think it’s aggressive, because she did this with Rainer, too, and he never responded in kind; it’s more an expression of nervous energy or maybe even jealousy? I don’t know. Whatever it is, I need to start training some impulse control and get her to cut it out.
  6. Improve her relationship with Guion. Get advice from Deven (our trainer) about how to accomplish this? I am kind of at a loss. He feeds her, he slips her bacon, he tries not to engage with her at all unless she initiates it… but she is still very fearful of him. After a year. Sigh. It’s kind of disheartening sometimes.

What are some of your goals for your dog this month? And if you have any training tips for me, feel free to dish ‘em out!

How does a dog learn to have great recall?

OK, I have a question for all of you dog training pros out there:

If your dog has great recall, how did you train him/her?

Dublin's intense face

Dublin.

I’ve always thought about this, and one of the most puzzling things to me is that the dog I know with the BEST recall wasn’t that seriously trained (or trained with methods that I disagree with, or have been taught are flat-out wrong).

Dublin is the dog with the most outstanding recall that I know. She lives, as you may remember, next door to my parents and my dad considers her his surrogate dog; he spends a ton of time with her. Dublin will stop on a DIME when you call her name. Dad told me that this past week, she got out of the gate to chase a cat in the neighborhood, but she stopped immediately when he called her — in the middle of a cat chase! And ran right back to him. This astonishes me, and yet I’ve seen her do it. She comes right to you, every single time. Dublin responds to anyone who calls her name, too — even to her family’s little girls.

But this is what bugs me. When I asked my dad why Dublin has such great recall, he always tells me this story: “When Dublin was a puppy, she was about to wander into the street, so I grabbed her and smacked her pretty hard and told her not to do that again. She really learned, though! She’s come perfectly ever since.”

Dublin

All of the reading and training I’ve done tells me that this can’t be true, that dogs don’t learn from physical punishment, that Dublin must be afraid of my father, etc. If you’ve seen them together, however, it is impossible to believe that she comes out of fear. This dog trusts my father utterly; she adores him. In fact, my dad might be the only person that Dublin truly loves; she’s more or less indifferent to everyone else. I’ve honestly never seen any anxiety or fear when she interacts with him. Furthermore, he doesn’t use physical punishments with her on a regular basis. He swears this was the only time he ever smacked her.

Dublin has not really received any formal training; I don’t think she even knows how to go “sit” or “down” on command, but she is an excellent Frisbee player, athlete, and all-around wonderful family dog.

So, what do you think? Why does Dublin have such great recall? Can it really be the smack from my dad when she was a puppy, as he claims?

How did you train YOUR dogs to have great recall?